Thursday, May 21, 2015

Boycott! The Poster Show

 The Art of Economic Activism

"Boycott" by Ricardo Levins Morales, Northland Poster Collective, digital print2002, Minneapolis, MN

“Rosa Parks” by Donnelly/Colt, offset print, 1990. Courtesy American Friends Service Committee
The featured art exhibition at Obsidian Café in Olympia is Boycott! The Art of Economic Activism, a traveling poster exhibit of 58 posters highlighting diverse historical boycott movements, from Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott that fired up the civil rights movement in the 1950s to today’s Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

The exhibit features posters for more than 20 boycotts, including, in addition to those mentioned above, the United Farm Workers’ grape and lettuce boycotts in the 1970s and divestment from Apartheid in South Africa in the ’80s.

Protest posters are designed to be bold and grab immediate attention. Like advertising art of all types, poster art tries to convey the most information with the fewest words, to have an emotional impact and to move the viewer to action — whether that action is to attend a lecture or meeting or to spread the word or to not buy lettuce. Unlike a lot of advertising art, such posters tend to be less than aesthetically sophisticated or sophisticated in a way not normally associated with fine art – although that lack of sophistication itself can have an aesthetic impact, as witnessed by much of pop art or, as a prime recent example, rock posters by the likes of Art Chantry (see my recent review of Art Chantry Speaks in the Weekly Volcano).

Some of these posters are all words with no images, crudely hand-written, such as Ricardo Levin Morales’ poster that reads: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together.”

Some are simple and elegant, such as the Rosa Parks poster with a sepia-tone photograph of the civil rights icon seated on a bus and the words: “You are the spark that started our freedom movement. Thank you sister Rosa Parks” — lyrics from the song by the Neville Brothers.

Bob Zierings’ poster “Divest Now” from 1978 is an anti-apartheid poster that combines strong and beautifully rendered drawing of a face with hands breaking chains with bold and simple Helvetica type in all caps: “FREE SOUTH AFRICA – DIVEST NOW.”

Another poster from the same year has a black and white line drawing of a stereotypical black mammy with a head scarf in the style of 19th century woodcuts and the legend “Del Monte Profits from Apartheid.”

One of the strongest images with the simplest message of all is a fairly recent (1992) poster by an unknown artist that has nothing on it but the words “Boycott Colorado” in all-caps with white letters over a black silhouette of a mountain range. Without knowing the story behind it there would be no way of understanding that it was in protest of an amendment of Colorado’s state constitution that prevented any city, town or country from recognizing LGBTQ individuals as a protected class. At the time, no explanation was needed.

Overall the posters in this show are bold and colorful, innovative and well designed. Artistically they accomplish what good posters should, and the show as a whole presents a history of political movements over the past half century that should be appreciated by everyone, whether or not they agree with the advocated political positions.

The show was organized by the American Friends Service Committee and Center for the Study of Political Graphics and is sponsored in Olympia by the Rachel Corrie Foundation.

Boycott! The Art of Economic Activism, through May 30, Obsidian, 414 4th Ave E, Olympia

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